The voice coming through the cell phone John Irving held to his ear sounded different from the reading voice Jonathon Franzen used at his events.
“You gotta help me, man. She picked Freedom.”
“Always a good choice. Who is this?” Irving asked.
“Well, um, it’s uh, Franzen. Jonathan.”
Irving nodded his head. He knew all about this. When you’re at the top of the hill, everyone takes a shot.
“Is this Jonathan ‘the Great American Novelist’ Franzen?”
He knew who it was and knew what he wanted. He wanted to get into the octagon.
“Let me tell you straight out, it won’t happen.”
“What won’t happen?”
“A Great American Novelist never asks what will or won’t happen; they already know.”
“Then you heard?”
“I hear it in my sleep, pal. Everyone wants a piece of Johnny Irving the wrestler after I whipped up on a few has-beens and other Great American Novelists. Now you want your chance. No surprise there. Do you know how to fight? Did you at least wrestle in high school?”
Jonathan Franzen paused the sort of pause he takes when asked a five-part three hundred word question at a reading that takes the audience member ten minutes to ask.
Jonathan Franzen listens.
“You think I want to fight you? In the octagon?”
“That’s where it goes down. What’s your background?”
“I’m a writer, you loon, not some UFC reject. I can handle myself, but no, I don’t want to fight you.”
“It’s okay, Jonathan. You’re talking to another Great American Novelist. There’s not that many of us.” Irving said. “I even have a book out. Maybe you’ve heard of it, Last Night In Twisted River? We’ve both made the cover of Time, just like Bruce.”
“He made Newsweek and Time in the same week. Let’s not get carried away.”
John Irving did what he always did when someone else mentions Bruce Springsteen. “B R U U U E S S S S S.”
“Okay, put down the bic lighter, John. I need help. Oprah picked Freedom for the Oprah Book Club. She wants me on the show.”
“No problem so far.”
“I got un-invited last time.”
“Rightfully so, and your sales jumped. Will you do that again? Snub Oprah twice?”
“I didn’t snub her. I was trying to say complicated things before I went on; I thought Oprah’s endorsement might keep my male readers away. I should have been saying simple things.”
“Yes, that would have worked. That’s what I said this time. But I sensed something else. Remember A Million Little Pieces by James Frey? She had him on for the book, than again when she found out he’d fooled her and her researchers.”
“I do remember. She wanted to kick his ass,” Irving said.
“I think she wants to kick mine.”
“She probably could.”
“That’s why I’m calling. I need a coach. You took on Hemingway and won.”
“Another Great American Novelist. Very formidable. He wouldn’t fight Oprah.”
“Neither will I, but what if I have to?”
Irving ran his hand through his hair.
“Like she might push an octagon up against your dressing room door and the only way out of your room is through it, with Oprah waiting in the middle? Then you’d have to?”
“Something like that, yeah. What do I do?”
Irving opened the door to his wrestling room.
“Are you anywhere near a high school? If you are, go find a wrestling coach and pay him to show you how to move on the mat. Your best chance is controlling the tempo of the match…”
“There won’t be a match.”
“…until you see her drop her hands, then you close. Make her tired and hope you don’t get as tired doing it.”
“Do you understand? No match.”
“It’ll be great. Listen, maybe I could be the referee?”
“You wouldn’t let it go too far?”
“And risk you losing out on the rest of your book tour, especially after Oprah’s blessing? Would I do that to a fellow Great American Novelist? Come on. Listen, I”ll call you back. ”
“What do I say to the high school wrestling coach?”
“Ask him about ground and pound.”
“Ground and pound? Got it.”
“You’ll get it.”
“You know that move Oprah does with both hands out front like she’s chopping wood, or praying? You don’t want that coming down on your neck.”
“I’ll call you back.”